Thursday, 27 April 2017

Quirks & Curiosities Off the Track

If you’re up for the Ffestiniog Railway's QnC2 you will be impressed and entertained by some amazing and eccentric contraptions; it’s a wonderful sort of Heath Robinson jamboree. My favourite is Spooner’s Boat – I just love the idea of losing momentum on The Cob, unfurling your sail and arriving carbon neutral at Harbour Station - no push, no sweat. 
Spooner's Boat (FR Photo)

As well as those on the track, there are lots of quirks and curiosities close to the track and here is a selection of some of my favourites.

On the big rock above Cob Records, overlooking the harbour, is a rock cannon – one of three alongside the railway. The others are by Tan y Bwlch Station and close to the entrance of the Moelwyn Tunnel. These were made by quarrymen for firing on special occasions, such as a royal visit, winning the war, big weddings and so on.  

All three have 17 holes, each about 5 inches deep. The holes were part filled with black powder and covered with stemming (crushed stones) through which a goose quill filled with powder acted as a detonator. Connecting the various holes was a line of goose fat embedded with more black powder. Light the touch fuse, stand well back and enjoy the show.

Ellie from Countryfile at the cannon
Too little stemming and the explosions would be damp squibs. Too tightly packed with stemming and the rock would be blasted to smithereens. There were many accidents.

At Blaenau, between the station and the shops, are some amazing slate sculptures which were installed 5 years ago. You can’t fail to miss the 7 ½ metre tall chisels, each made of 15,000 roofing slates and stacked at an angle of 30, the same angle at which the slate beds lie within the mountains.


The River of Slate is a mosaic in the pavement with the names of each of the 350 Welsh slate quarries carved into their own piece of slate. Each piece of slate is the colour that was extracted from that quarry. There are at least 50 shades of grey but also purples, greens and browns depending upon the geology. 

Just up the line from Tan y Bwlch are a couple of private halts with interesting houses. Coed y Bleiddiau is the old railway inspector’s house which has been leased by the FR to many interesting tenants including St John Philby, the father of Kim aka ‘Philby the Spy’. It’s being renovated by the Landmark Trust and should be available as a holiday cottage by the end of the year.

Yet further up the line is another private platform called Campbell’s. It was built for the eccentric Colonel who helped with the rebuilding of the line to Blaenau. In the 20 years he lived here he worked tirelessly to restore Plas y Dduallt, the old house which is currently up for sale. If you’d like to have a look inside, here’s a great little film.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Lifestyle House Film

Let’s sell the house. Let’s choose an estate agent with OnTheMarket. Let’s make a film about it. OK, but what sort of film? We looked at lots of films of houses in North Wales and there is quite a mixed bag from the cheap and cheerful to the professional. The professionally produced films all showed the houses to their best, with excellent camera work, but one film in particular caught our eye. Everything about it was just right and we said that’s what we want.

Watch those chimneys!
Whereas the other films were good, we found them a bit sterile, cold and lacking in character. But the one we liked invited us in, this was a lifestyle house film, a sub-genre we had been unaware of. Instead of seeing rooms, windows and gardens you saw people using and enjoying them.

After a brief exchange of emails ‘Gareth the Film’ came to meet us, to do a recce and talk through some ideas. The key question was to what extent would we be prepared to get into the spirit of it. Would we be filmed arriving by train? Picking some herbs? Playing with the dog? Catching some fish and putting them on the BBQ for friends who we’d meet at the platform? We said yes.

With the story and scenes agreed we had to procure some props, dress the rooms, make sure the garden was looking just right and invite some extras to be our guests for the BBQ scene.

A key element of the film was choosing the right music and we scoured through websites that provide thousands of tracks for use in films. After dismissing ones that sounded too much like Lord of the Rings, we ended up with a perfect choice – the rhythm was light and happy and most importantly it would fit in with the sounds of an approaching train. Our chosen track was 2 ½ minutes long, so that became the length of the film. Surely that wouldn’t take two days to film!? 
Gareth and John Hearn

As the first day approached we prayed that the forecast of good weather would hold, this was to be the day for outdoor filming and the BBQ. Gareth arrived with his partner-in-film, his father John, who operated various cameras and microphones and was also the ‘spotter’ for the flying of drones. Drones would be a key component of the production and for this we would need wind speeds of less than 17 mph.

It was a Sunday with just two trains scheduled which would pass Campbell’s Platform twice on the way up and twice on the way down. These were the four, time-critical slots of the day for the story to work.

As the first train approached I stuck out my hand to request it to stop and it did. I then asked the volunteer guard if it would be OK for me to get on and off a few times while I was filmed from different angles. Having pre-booked this with the management of the railway I was expecting ‘of course, no problem’. But instead I got ‘that’s the first I’ve heard of it’ and much later ‘I’ve got a connection to make’. But we were accommodated and it all worked well.

The story involved my returning with the shopping to the kitchen where Sue was boiling a kettle on the Rayburn for coffee. We were supposed to exchange a kiss as I put down the shopping bag and Sue poured the boiling water into the mugs. Sounds simple enough, but there were many takes and near misses!

After Sue was filmed doing some gardening, I tied a fly in the old barn, walked away with a split-cane rod and returned moments later with a couple of trout. Virtual fishing with the help of a Tesco’s fish counter is so convenient and guarantees success.

Our guests arrived on the down train and we greeted them on the platform. After the children played in the garden, throwing frisbee to Molly, we settled down by the BBQ, where the trout was cooking, and toasted with Champagne …. This was the critical closing scene!

The drone was in the air beneath the Scots Pine as we waited for the last down train of the day, hovering at eye level until Gareth heard the train’s whistle. It was then a swift flight away from the tree and up into the sky at the right angle to capture the house in front of the mountain with the train swinging into view. It worked perfectly.

On the second day of filming we filled in the key gaps of the story such as the rooms and the actual riding of the train. Continuity meant I had to wear the same clothes and carry the same shopping bag and contents – I looked fine, but the baguette was a bit limp.

For the interior filming a lot of use was made of the ‘slider’, a level track on which the camera could move sideways. It was very effective at conveying the sense of just walking into a room. Then there was the boom which captured the essence of the four-poster room. It started high to focus on the cruck beams, coming down to reveal the bed itself and the ancient Persian tapestry above.

It was an enjoyable experience working with Gareth and John and a couple of days later Gareth was back with two versions of the film to get our feedback as to which we preferred and whether any final edits were needed. We were over the moon with what we saw and are hopeful that this film is going to be a great success in attracting potential buyers to the house. For further details look at OnThe Market.

Gareth and John own and work for North Shore Productions. This is the film and I think it's fantastic. Everyone was a star but I think Molly upstaged us all.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Campbell’s Kingdom

In 1962 a retired colonel from the Black Watch regiment bought an old manor house in the Vale of Ffestiniog. He bought it on a whim at the auction of the Plas Tan y Bwlch estate and was doubly surprised that, not only was his bid accepted, but the bank manager agreed to the necessary loan.
Campbell building the signal box
The building was in a sorry state, with the roof leaking like a colander, a collapsed stone spiral staircase and over a hundred years of ‘buy to let’ neglect. It was a shadow of its former glory as the posh home to the Lloyds, minor nobles who traced their ancestry back to Llewelyn the Great.

Andrew Campbell spent the next, and the last, twenty years of his life restoring the house with the help of some grants and a lot of resourcefulness. His first major challenge was the delivery of materials – the only access was by foot up a steep path.

At this time, the volunteers, known as the ‘deviationists’, were building the deviation route to re-open the railway which had stopped operating at the end of WWII. The Central Electricity Generating Board had flooded the track with a reservoir, to create Britain’s first pumped-storage hydro station, and the new route needed to go above as opposed to through Llyn Tanygrisiau.


Starting from Porthmadog they had reached Campbell’s ‘new’ house and he offered them the use of his barn for accommodation and his help with the explosives. In return he was given a platform onto the railway and a running powers agreement which allowed him to drive his own engine on the line.

As well as for the delivery of materials, the railway was also a lifeline for Andrew’s daily commute, to the Merioneth Council office in Dolgellau, where he worked as the solicitor for the county. He had been a lawyer in the army, which is governed by the laws of England and Wales – this meant he could not practice law in Scotland and that’s why we had this charismatic Scotsman in Snowdonia.

In 1974 the story of his eccentric commute sparked the interest of the BBC which made a 30-minute documentary called ‘The Campbells Came by Rail’. They filmed Andrew parking his car at Tan y Bwlch station, where he hand-cranked his diesel engine, called The Colonel of course, and drove the mile up the line before parking on the siding. To get the shopping the fifty yards down from the platform to the house he used an electric aerial hoist.

By the time of the filming, the Colonel had just created a half-mile driveway through the nature reserve to the house, which would have detracted from the story, so the cameraman was careful to avoid any shots that showed the new road.

As well as the commute, the half hour documentary also covered the restoration of the house including some of Andrew’s carpentry. He built ancient looking doors and furniture out of reclaimed timber and left his mark in many places such as the wooden beam over the fireplace in the main bedroom. In the middle is his adopted coat of arms and on either end of the beam are Andrew and his second wife Mary. Andrew is dressed in his medieval clothes next to a heart with an M in the middle for Mary. On the opposite side is Mary with her heart beating A for Andrew.

Colonel Campbell died in 1982, the year that the line was re-opened all the way to Blaenau. There’s a memorial stone dedicated to him at the Dduallt railway spiral, but his epitaph has to be Campbell’s Platform, which together with the medieval house were Campbell’s Kingdom.

His twenty-year mission to restore the medieval Plas y Dduallt was a brief but important chapter in its long history. You can see the fruits of his labour in the above film which has been made to promote the sale of Campbell's Kingdom.

Mrs Spinks and Eleanor Brooks

Eleanor Brooks was busy bringing up a family of four children, and placed an advert for a cleaner, so that she could concentrate more on her art.

Eleanor Brooks with Mrs Spinks in her bedsit
This was in 1966 and Mrs Spinks applied for the post. Her opening words were: ‘I used to be a nanny you know. I'm broke. I just pawned my wireless.I only got ten bob and I've got to pay my rent.'

Having a soft spot for nannies Eleanor invited her in and, assuming that nannies would know how to do basic housework, Mrs Spinks was hired, more out of pity than merit.

Her housework was a disaster. When ironing clothes she would burn through the material. Plates which she stacked in a cupboard would fall onto the floor when the door was opened.

After a couple of days Eleanor decided to switch her from being a cleaner to being a model and for the next seven years she sketched and painted the ever-changing guise of Mrs Spinks.

A Portrait of Mrs Spinks was first exhibited in 1973 and has been shown on at least 25 occasions since then. It is currently in residence until 7th May at Oriel Brondanw which is at Plas Brondanw, near to Llanfrothen and Eleanor’s home.

I met with Eleanor for her to record the story of Mrs Spinks and this is what she said:

Thursday, 20 April 2017

What type of film to help sell a house?

Let’s sell the house. Let’s choose an estate agent. Let’s make a film about it. OK, but what sort of film? We looked at lots of films of houses in North Wales and there is quite a mixed bag from the cheap and cheerful to the professional. The professionally produced films all showed the houses to their best, with excellent camera work, but one film in particular caught our eye. Everything about it was just right and we said that’s what we want. 

Whereas the other films were good, we found them a bit sterile, cold and lacking in character. But the one we liked invited us in, this was a lifestyle house film, a sub-genre we had been unaware of. Instead of seeing rooms, windows and gardens you saw people using and enjoying them.

After a brief exchange of emails ‘Gareth the Film’ came to meet us, to do a recce and talk through some ideas. The key question was to what extent would we be prepared to get into the spirit of it. Would we be filmed arriving by train? Picking some herbs? Playing with the dog? Catching some fish and putting them on the BBQ for friends who we’d meet at the platform? We said yes.

With the story and scenes agreed we had to procure some props, dress the rooms, make sure the garden was looking just right and invite some extras to be our guests for the BBQ scene.

A key element of the film was choosing the right music and we scoured through websites that provide thousands of tracks for use in films. After dismissing ones that sounded too much like Lord of the Rings, we ended up with a perfect choice – the rhythm was light and happy and most importantly it would fit in with the sounds of an approaching train. Our chosen track was 2 ½ minutes long, so that became the length of the film. Surely that wouldn’t take two days to film!?

As the first day approached we prayed that the forecast of good weather would hold, this was to be the day for outdoor filming and the BBQ. Gareth arrived with his partner-in-film, his father John, who operated various cameras and microphones and was also the ‘spotter’ for the flying of drones. Drones would be a key component of the production and for this we would need wind speeds of less than 17 mph. 
Gareth and John Hearn

It was a Sunday with just two trains scheduled which would pass Campbell’s Platform twice on the way up and twice on the way down. These were the four, time-critical slots of the day for the story to work.

As the first train approached I stuck out my hand to request it to stop and it did. I then asked the volunteer guard if it would be OK for me to get on and off a few times while I was filmed from different angles. Having pre-booked this with the management of the railway I was expecting ‘of course, no problem’. But instead I got ‘that’s the first I’ve heard of it’ and much later ‘I’ve got a connection to make’. But we were accommodated and it all worked well.

The story involved my returning with the shopping to the kitchen where Sue was boiling a kettle on the Rayburn for coffee. We were supposed to exchange a kiss as I put down the shopping bag and Sue poured the boiling water into the mugs. Sounds simple enough, but there were many takes and near misses!

After Sue was filmed doing some gardening, I tied a fly in the old barn, walked away with a split-cane rod and returned moments later with a couple of trout. Virtual fishing with the help of a Tesco’s fish counter is so convenient and guarantees success.

Our guests arrived on the down train and we greeted them on the platform. After the children played in the garden, throwing frisbee to Molly, we settled down by the BBQ, where the trout was cooking, and toasted with Champagne …. This was the critical closing scene!

The drone was in the air beneath the Scots Pine as we waited for the last down train of the day, hovering at eye level until Gareth heard the train’s whistle. It was then a swift flight away from the tree and up into the sky at the right angle to capture the house in front of the mountain with the train swinging into view. It worked perfectly.

On the second day of filming we filled in the key gaps of the story such as the rooms and the actual riding of the train. Continuity meant I had to wear the same clothes and carry the same shopping bag and contents – I looked fine, but the baguette was a bit limp.

For the interior filming a lot of use was made of the ‘slider’, a level track on which the camera could move sideways. It was very effective at conveying the sense of just walking into a room. Then there was the boom which captured the essence of the four-poster room. It started high to focus on the cruck beams, coming down to reveal the bed itself and the ancient Persian tapestry above. 

It was an enjoyable experience working with Gareth and John and a couple of days later Gareth was back with two versions of the film to get our feedback as to which we preferred and whether any final edits were needed. We were over the moon with what we saw and are hopeful that this film is going to be a great success in attracting potential buyers to the house.

But as Gareth pointed out, having a great film is no use at all unless you get people to watch it. He then proceeded to give us a masterclass in social media. Thanks Gareth and John – we will nominate you for an Oscar.

Gareth and John own and work for North Shore Productions. This is the film and I think it's fantastic. Everyone was a star but I think Molly upstaged us all.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The Lloyds of Dduallt

When we moved into the house we inherited lots of documents, articles and letters full of titbits and speculation on its history with building dates ranging from the 15th to the 17th century.  Then we joined the Dating Old Welsh Houses project and from the science of dendrochronology we now know the first house (west) was constructed around timbers that were felled between 1559 and 1565 and the second (east) house from fellings between 1600 and 1604. These two houses, on a cliff overlooking the Vale of Ffestiniog, were joined together at the first floor although we don’t know when; the tithe map (1842) shows them separate. 

 One of the other things we inherited with the house was a framed copy of the Dduallt page out of Griffith’s Pedigrees. The full title of the book, first published in 1914, is ‘Pedigrees of Anglesey and Caernarfonshire Families’ with each page tracing the genealogy structured around significant houses. From this we have leapt to the likely conclusion that the first house was built by John of Dol y Ddwyryd, an older way of describing Plas Dol Moch in the valley below, and the second house by his son David Lloyd. Unlike the tree ring dating this is not a fact - John Edward Griffith did not always get it right!

Lloyds are named in documents connected with the house all the way through to 1903 but it’s a common name and we can’t (yet) prove the Lloyds of the 1840s are related to the previous Lloyds. 
Cores from beams with crumbly sap wood at the end


Early history is sketchy and confusing in places. David Lloyd, builder of the second house, married into the Pengwern family, as did his grandfather.  One of David’s sons married into the Park family of Llanfrothen whilst his oldest son John Lloyd inherited Dduallt and married Margaret, daughter of John ap Richard of Ffestiniog, who had also married into the Park family!

The Civil War must have been tricky times for families such as these. There is evidence that the current grand house at Dol Moch, built around 1643 by John Jones, was used as a royalist headquarters.  There are also stories that Dduallt was used as the headquarters of the parliamentary forces and billet for the officers during the siege of Harlech. But the Lloyds survived.

There are several references to John Lloyd, including the tax payment of five hearths in 1662 and his death in 1665 without children and thus his nephew Hugh Lloyd inherited.

Hugh married Katherine, daughter of Robert Evans of Tan y Bwlch, and there is mention in Hanes Plwyf Ffestiniog of a cupboard at Dduallt with the inscription H.Ll 1672 K.E.  In 1684 Hugh Lloyd died and his will, written early that year, contains the following provision ..... ‘unto my daughter Catherine Lloyd all that tenement and lands known as Bron-y mannod ... for and during the terme of five years’. This property, a 100 acre farm just beneath Manod Mawr, remained a part of the Dduallt estate all the way through to 1920. Why should Dduallt have a long term satellite that far away? Bron y Manod abutted the Pengwern estate which in turn abutted Dol Moch and thence Dduallt. We suspect, but can’t prove, that the power and influence that created Dduallt emanated from the Pengwern family. Maybe a marriage settlement?

Within the same will Hugh Lloyd goes on to leave his ‘manhor houses’ to his eldest son Robert Lloyd including the four wainscot bedsteads at Dduallt and the two at Bron y Manod.  Locally this type of bedstead is referred to as a ‘gwely wenscot’ and we have obtained some pictures from St Fagan’s. In essence it is a bit like a four poster enclosed on three sides with wood panelling and either a sliding door or thick curtain on the fourth:  imagine how cosy that must have been, a bit like camping in the bedroom. 
Gwely Wenscot (St Fagan's Museum)

 Appended to the will is the inventory and valuation for probate which lists the total value of possessions at £167 14sh 00d. Included in the list are the following livestock: 6 oxen, 18 cows, 12 bullocks and heifers, 1 horse and mare, working horses and wild horses, 219 sheep, 1 hog and 59 goats.  Descendants of these goats are still here today!

Robert Lloyd married Anne, daughter of Griffith Vaughan of Dolmelynllyn who entered into an agreement with Katherine Lloyd (Robert’s mother) in 1693 to pay a marriage portion of £170.   Robert and Anne were quite prolific spawning nine children including Elizabeth who married into the Brondanw family.

By the time of Robert’s first will the eldest son Hugh had died and Griffith, the second eldest, is or is about to become an attorney at law. In his subsequent will of 1753 ‘being far stricken in years but of a sound and perfect disposing mind and memory (praise be God)’ he leaves five shillings to his by now eldest son William Lloyd and other legacies including the yearly interest of the principal sums of two hundred pounds to both Evan and Robert Lloyd who are described ungraciously in Griffith’s Pedigrees as ‘idiots’. To outlive two sons and have another two described as idiots is dreadful bad fortune.

In 1747 William Lloyd had married Catherine Jones, daughter of Evan John Owen of Dolwreiddog, and together they had five children. William Lloyd’s will was dated 10th February 1774, just twelve days before he died. Neither William nor his wife Catherine were able to sign their names but simply placed their mark. We suspect their eldest son had died and therefore John Lloyd inherited with £200 legacies for two of his sisters but no mention of his youngest sister Catherine who goes on to marry Rice Price from the Parish of ‘Dolgelly’ in 1781.

There is an implication that Catherine and Rice Price did not meet family expectations. In her mother’s will, Catherine Lloyd, is the following provision ‘to my grand-daughter Catherine Price daughter of Rice Price Mariner the sum of twenty pounds the interest thereof to be allowed my daughter Catherine Price (being her mother) for and during the term of the natural life of her my said daughter Catherine Price to her own use free and uncontrolled by her husband Rice Price’. What had Rice Price done to offend his mother in law?

John Lloyd had six children all of whom were said to be of Dduallt at baptism, the last one being the second son, William Lloyd, in 1793. William celebrated his 21st birthday at the Pengwern Arms on 5th May 1814 ‘when his friends and tenantry were sumptuously entertained’. In a subsequent newspaper report in August 1817 we learn of his marriage ‘At Corwen, William Lloyd, Esq. of Dduallt in the County of Merioneth, to Margaret youngest daughter of Mr Richard Horne, Solicitor, Ruthin’. The parish register for Corwen records the marriage on 1st August with William being of Ruthin parish. Presumably he was no longer living at Dduallt.

Between 1813 and 1827 there are four baptism records in the parish registers showing children from Dduallt with surnames of Roberts, Edwards and Williams but no Lloyd.  

In 1832 the Ffestiniog Railway Act of Parliament was passed which included an appendix listing the landowners against whom compulsory purchase orders could be served.  Trustees of the late William Lloyd were the owners of the Dduallt section.  His widow Margaret is recorded in the 1841 census living in Vale Road, Ruthin, with (probably) a younger brother and his wife. She is shown as being  'independent’.

By 1842 Dduallt and Bron y Manod were owned by the Rt Rev Lord Robert Ponsonby Tottenham from County Wicklow who was also Bishop of Clogher. The property passed down the line to the next two generations of Tottenhams who lived between Ireland and Plas Berwyn in Denbighshire. Both held local positions of office including being a JP and Deputy Lieutenant of Merionethshire.  Why were they in the Vale of Ffestiniog? Maybe they were railway or quarrying investors.

At this time what had once been a minor noble’s house was very different with the 1841 census showing it split into three units housing a total of fifteen people. To complicate matters a Thomas Lloyd and his family had spread themselves between Glanyrafon, a farmhouse at the bottom of the hill and part of the Dduallt estate, and Dduallt. At present there is no evidence this Lloyd family was related to the original Lloyd family. The first unit of Dduallt housed Richard Lloyd and Elizabeth with their five labourers and two servants. Maybe not surprisingly the second unit housed a railway foreman and his family. In the 1851 census the foreman had been replaced by a copper miner, which may give a date for the mine working just outside the house, and we learn that Richard Lloyd is farming 665 acres. 

Richard died in 1852 and David Lloyd took over the Dduallt farm tenancy having moved up from Glanyrafon.   His father, Thomas Lloyd, and other members of the family were still in Glanyrafon in 1851 but by 1861 they were living at Dduallt with David being the farmer and Thomas retired.

In 1903 David Lloyd died and by 1910 the tenant at Dduallt was Morris Thomas, with his wife and three children in residence at the 1911 census. Morris was the farmer until his death in 1927. By 1920 the farm had been sold at auction and become part of the Tan y Bwlch estate. More tenants followed until World War II when the house became home to 18 evacuees and their schoolmistress from Liverpool. After the war the reverend Hopkinson rented it for five shillings a year using it as a holiday home. One of the children, Barney Hopkinson, recently came back and described how dilapidated the place was. By great coincidence Margaret Dunn was a guest of the Hopkinsons in 1959 and can remember staring into space at the top of the collapsed stone spiral staircase.

The death of Hilda Inge in the 1950s triggered massive death duties resulting in the 1962 auction of the Tan y Bwlch estate. Colonel Andrew Henry Knight Campbell, formerly of the Black Watch regiment, went to the auction and ended up owning Plas y Dduallt. For the next twenty years he dedicated himself to the restoration of the dilapidated house adding, to the annoyance of historians, many embellishments. 

His epitaph is Campbell’s Platform, a private platform on the Ffestiniog Railway from which passing steam trains can still be hailed by occupants of the house. He got this through allowing the deviationists, volunteers building the deviation route to Blaenau, to stay in his barn. Also for using his explosives licence from army days to blast through the rocks.

At that time there was no vehicle access to the house and this was the subject of a classic BBC documentary in 1974 called The Campbells Came by Rail which described his commute from the office in Dolgellau, where he was county solicitor, by car to Tan y Bwlch station and thence on his private engine ‘The Colonel’ to Campbell’s Platform. At the time of the filming he had already bulldozed a zig-zag hairpin route up the cliff face through the national nature reserve so the camera crew took great pains to exclude this from the camera as this would have spoilt the story.
His widow Mary Campbell sold to Margaret and Tony Eaton in 1984 who added their artistic mark on the house and started the self-catering holiday business. This continued with many more improvements organised by Ruth and Ray Lewis between 1990 and 2004 including central heating and a tarmac driveway. Huw Jenkins and Sue Farrand are the current ‘caretakers’.

In the 1841 census there were fifty two people living in the five buildings on Dduallt farmland. In the census of 2011 there were just five!

VACANCY at Campbell’s Platform

A whistle blows – time to put the kettle on! Bubble… rumble… bubble… rumble… CLICK! The 'bubble' stops but the rumble gets louder. With mug in hand I walk outside and wave to the first train of the day from Porthmadog to Blaenau as it passes Campbell’s Platform.

Trains punctuate our days and mark the seasons. Winter is very quiet; when the ground goes to sleep, so do the trains, waking briefly for a festive fling after Christmas, and to raise children's spirits at half term. By Easter they are back in full swing, and it's time to tidy the platform and its tubs of primulas and daffodils – both ignored by sheep and goats. What’s wrong with them? Penstemon and wild geranium also resist the fate of most of the flowers we plant.

Pink… blue… pink… blue… and then yellow. Not flowers, but two, four, two, four and then six trains a day as the timetable ratchets up to carry ever more passengers in the run up to summer. The grass on the platform will need careful mowing; not in the sense that it's a bowling green, but because of the profusion of wild flowers. Bird's-foot trefoil, in particular, needs a high setting on the mower.

Summer passes all too soon, we’re back into the pink and blue phase of the timetable and then BANG! Doors slam and cameras, tripods and step ladders alight onto the platform carried by 50 or more enthusiasts – it’s the annual photographic charter. The boss man speaks into his walkie talkie: ‘OK Roger, fire her up!’ Roger does the necessary, clouds of steam rise above trees and the train swings into view at the start of Tank Curve. Frantic bursts of camera clicks capture the scene in a few thousand versions. ‘Sorry Roger, the light faded, can you do that again?’ Then winter is back and it’s quiet again. Will we get snow? Building and decorating the Colonel Campbell snowman is Sue’s speciality.

So far we have enjoyed thirteen cycles of the seasons since moving to Plas y Dduallt, the ancient house that comes with Campbell’s Platform, and a cottage known to the Deviationists as Dduallt Mess. However, our children have left home and it’s time for our next adventure – so the hunt is on for a new caretaker. Applicants should have a passion for old houses and steam trains.

The story of the restoration of the house and the building of the platform are nicely told in The Campbells Came by Rail, filmed by the BBC in 1974. Without the Colonel, there would be no Campbell’s Kingdom to inherit. We are the third family since then to have taken on the caretaker role of owning the house, and each has left its legacy. The Eatons were arty and left a four-poster bed with painted panels. The central panel is a portrait of the house with Moelwyn Bach behind and on either side are panels of voluptuous nudes. Guests say they dream well in that bed. The Lewis’s were both musical and practical. Sadly they didn’t leave their grand piano but they did leave central heating and tarmac on the drive.

Our legacy will be an improved landscape and the telling of the house's history. Through the Dating Old Welsh Houses project, we have had the beams dated to the trees being felled from 1559 in the old house and 1600 in the new house. The new house is the bit that you see from the footpath with the balcony and arrow slits below.

As part of the project we have also looked into the people who have lived in the house. It was the centre of a 600-acre farm which, in the 1841 census, had five dwellings housing 52 people including a railway foreman. In the 2011 census there were just five people living in two dwellings.

The house was built by the Lloyd family and the earliest will we have found is dated 1684. In the name of God Amen I Hugh Lloyd of Dduallt … gent being sicke in body but of good and perfect memory praised be god …. His possessions at probate listed the livestock which included the ‘nine and fifty goats’, descendants of which still entertain us with their antics as they roam their hereditary lands.

As for neighbours, the nearest house, half a mile down the line, has been empty for several years. This is the well-known former railway inspector’s house at Coed y Bleiddiau, the plot of land for which was once part of Dduallt farm. Happily, the Landmark Trust have set about restoring this house and soon there will be new occupants with which to share this paradise.

So, if you would like to apply for the post of caretaker at Campbell's, which comes with the house, please contact our estate agents Walter Lloyd Jones on 01341 422278.

If you'd like a flavour of what it's like to live in a historic house with a platform onto the Ffestiniog, this fantastic film was made by North Shore Productions:

Teeming Tadpoles on Top of the World

It was Easter Monday, mid-afternoon, and a last minute decision to go up Moelwyn Bach. Living here makes it easy to be inspired into spur of the moment mountain walks. Rucksacks packed, and with Molly’s frisbee, we set off on our little adventure. 

It's a dog's life
Sheep were enjoying the fine weather and oodles of space – so far just a few have been released up the mountain, last year’s lambs, that haven’t been tupped, and those that the farmer knows to be barren. But shepherding is not a precise subject, and there was a tiny lamb, probably born less than 24 hours ago. I hope it will be OK.

Pinkish fruits were forming on the bilberries and new shoots of bracken were still underground.
People lived, and worked, up here!

We stopped briefly at the cairn beside the lake then steeply up a craggy gully until we popped out just above the old quarrymens’ barracks. Whenever I see the barracks I think back to the time that we camped in the middle room and cooked our ‘Blazing Saddles’ supper in the makeshift kitchen next door. On that father son occasion we watched the sun set over Cardigan Bay before lying on a slab of rock to watch the incoming Perseids meteorite shower. 

Towards the top, one of the several ponds was teeming with tadpoles which were swimming vigorously, presumably to keep warm. These tadpoles must be a month or more behind those in our garden ponds, but they looked big and healthy.

Selfie on top of the world
At the summit it was windy and we paused for the customary, 10-second timed photo. Molly needed persuading to stay still.

On the way up I’d asked lots of short questions, to which Haydn had to give long answers, but now we were on the downhill, I didn’t feel constrained to save my breath and talked freely.

How many times have we walked this mountain? Different rocks, formations and mini waterfalls, all brought back memories of previous walks. 

Happy days - we’re going to miss this place. 

Monday, 17 April 2017

Connections to Campbell's

Mr Redfern arrives as fresh as a daisy
Mr Redfern is the current record holder for the fastest rail journey from Walthamstow Central to Campbell's Platform. Changing at Euston, Crewe, Llandudno Junction and Blaenau Ffestiniog, he arrived seven hours later as fresh as a daisy.

It's great to live part way up a mountain in Snowdonia but it's even better when you're connected to the world by a steam train.

Sometimes we get international visitors like Frank. Including a 14 hour flight to Heathrow and an overnight stop near Paddington, he arrived at Campbell's 30 hours after leaving Damascus. He still holds the record for Damascus to Campbell's.


Speaking of connections to Campbells .... I was working in the veg patch on Saturday and stopped to chat with a walker who turned out to be Delia, the niece of the late Mary Campbell. She told me about her holidays in the 1960s, before the railway was restored and long before the drive was built. They used to load their luggage and supplies on a flat wagon at Tan y Bwlch Station, then her brothers and father would take it in turn to push it up the line to what later became Campbell's Platform.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Rock Cannons

When it opened in 1836 the Ffestiniog Railway was powered by gravity, pony and water wheel. The brakes were released and gravity took the slate wagons all the way down to Porthmadog and the ponies brought them all the way back to Blaenau. But just beyond the western end of Tanygrisiau reservoir, the wagons went uphill, one at a time, driven by waterwheel.

From the day the railway opened this short uphill section was a bottleneck, and work commenced on the first Moelwyn tunnel, the one that is now flooded by the reservoir. Six years later the tunnel was opened, and thereafter the train truly ran downhill all the way by gravity.

Moelwyn tunnel Rock Cannon
with a piece of paper stuck in each hole
Just a few yards from the old bit of uphill track there is a slab of rock embedded amongst the heather and wild grasses. A bit like any other slab of rock except this one has 17 holes drilled into it. No question of a compressor-driven power tool, but good old hand drilling, five inches into solid granite.

This was not a training ground for apprentice quarrymen, but a rock cannon to be fired on special occasions. The holes were part filled with black powder and covered with stemming (crushed stones) through which a goose quill filled with powder acted as a detonator. Connecting the various holes was a line of goose fat embedded with more black powder. Light the touch fuse, stand well back and enjoy the show.

Too little stemming and the explosions would be damp squibs. Too tightly packed with stemming and the rock would be blasted to smithereens. There were many accidents.

This particular cannon is known to have been fired when the railway was first opened, and again in 1842 when the tunnel was completed. But it is just one of many. Throughout Gwynedd there are more than two hundred and fifty such cannons that have been recorded.

The design of later cannons was refined with channels cut into the rock to link the holes together. Sometimes there are as many as a hundred and sixty holes in a cannon. The timing of each explosion could be controlled or varied by the length of channel between the holes. In this way one of the cannons was designed to beat out 'God Save the Queen'.

The greatest concentrations of cannons occur around quarries, especially those associated with the landed gentry: the reason being that they had a large number of VIP guests to impress, and what better way to do so than with a display of rock cannons.

Cannons would be fired to celebrate weddings, jubilees, declarations of peace, but probably the most extensive displays would be to welcome Royal visits. The Daily Mail’s account of the Prince of Wales’s visit to Blaenau in 1923 gives an idea of how impressive they must have been … each mountain sprang into eruption. The Prince sat in his car and crushed his cap into his hand. And while the roar of the explosions rose above the cheering he banged a fist into the palm of his hand and said, 'I have never seen anything more wonderful – never'.

Ellie filming the Rock Cannon at Porthmadog
Special occasions such as weddings are best held on dry days – especially so if you’re planning to fire cannons. On 6th August 1863 a Blaenau quarry owner F. S. Percival was to marry Miss Jones Parry and …great was the rejoicing in the quarries as the day was a general holiday for them. A large number of rock cannon were prepared to be fired throughout the day of the marriage but that was prevented due to torrential rain. The cannons were fired a month later on the couple’s return from honeymoon.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could get these cannons into action again? But then again I doubt whether we would get past Health and Safety.

Narrow Gauge in the West Indies

LYd2 is no relation to Lyd on the Ffestiniog Railway and I’m told by Wiki that LYd2 stands for; L = narrow gauge locomotive, Y = 3 axles, d = diesel fuel and 2 = hydraulic transmission. Not very romantic. It’s 1 of the 2 or 3 locos that operate on the St Kitts Scenic Railway in the West Indies.

LYd2 at the St Kitts Needsmust Station
St Kitts was the Mother Colony, the first British colony in the Caribbean – it was also the centre of the British sugar trade. Sugar cultivation had started in the 1640s and it soon became the only crop, a monoculture. Its sugar was a very high quality; yields were high, in terms of how much sugar came from a ton of sugarcane, due to the fertile ground and availability of water – the growing conditions were perfect.

The average sugar estate was 300 acres and as a rule of thumb you needed 1 slave per acre. In 1680 the population was split 50:50 between slaves and the rest but it went on to become a ratio of 10:1 with 20,000 slaves on the island and many of the plantation owners living in luxury back in Britain.

On all the other islands the sugar industry went downhill very fast after slaves were granted their freedom in 1834, but not so here. The law might have changed but otherwise the realities of life were the same. White people owned all the land, controlled the government and there was only one crop – so sugar production marched on, albeit with the former slaves now being paid.

At the centre of each estate, and by now there were 300 estates, would be a mini sugar factory, with a crushing machine to extract the juices from the cane, and a boiling house where the juice was converted into molasses. The first crushing machines were powered by livestock, but then came the windmills, which was a big improvement, provided there was wind. These in turn were converted to steam in the 1870s and as you travel around the island there are these pairs of a fat tower (for a windmill) and close to it, a tall chimney for the fires.

At the start of the 20th century the global sugar cane market was in serious decline, it was being outcompeted by sugar beet production. So the St Kitts plantation owners decided to modernise – instead of having 300 small factories on the 300 estates they built one central sugar factory and to connect the estates to the factory they built a narrow gauge railway.
Double decker carriages coming round the bend at Tabernacle.
Air conditioned carriages beneath.

This investment coincided with World War I, when lots of the land in Europe being used for sugar beet, was now a battlefield, or being used to grow wheat. As a result of modernisation and circumstance, the industry in St Kitts became profitable once more.

But by the 1970s the industry was in bad shape again and the government nationalised it – buying the land and the factory. The estate owners grumbled about the price of their land but the initiative went through and the industry limped on until the factory closed and production stopped in 2005. At the start of the 21st century the costs of production were more than double the price for which the sugar could be sold, despite the majority of the export being bought by Britain at an inflated price. The Government subsidy was an unsustainable burden on the economy.

St Kitts had been outcompeted by producers with large tracts of land which could be harvested mechanically – the rugged landscape of St Kitts meant that 80% of the sugarcane had to be cut by hand.

A small trolley precedes the train to open the level crossings
and a 4 x 4 follows by road to close them.
The railway construction, to deliver sugar cane from the plantations to the new central sugar factory, began in 1912 and took 14 years to complete. It is a narrow gauge railway and was run during the harvest season between February and June - for the train buffs the gauge was 30” which is not as narrow as the 23 ½” gauge of the Ffestiniog Railway.

The Sugar Train rattled into the yard for the last time in 2005, that was the year when the government pulled the plug on the loss making sugar factory.

In parallel with the final years of the Sugar Train, it began its new life starting to operate as the tourist train in 2003.

Prices on heritage railways are never cheap – they cost a fortune to run – but included within a ride on the St Kitts are complimentary drinks, such as rum punch, frozen daiquiris and soft drinks. There is a tour director who provides the commentary and sometimes there is even an acapella choir!

As for the St Kitts equivalent of Harbour Station, that's called the NEEDSMUST TRAIN STATION. To find out more about the St Kitts Railway click here.


Thursday, 13 April 2017

Wild Car

Not a Mustang nor a Ferrari, but a skimpy piece of wood mounted on a wheel and a rod of iron racing 50 mph down a Welsh mountain.
Emrys with a Wild Car
Getting slate down the mountain from the high quarries of Ffestiniog was a feat of Victorian engineering ingenuity. The power was provided by a wagon full of slate going down to pull up an empty wagon on a pair of narrow gauge rails running the length of an incline. Between each pair of rails was a steel rope, running on rollers, which connected the dependent wagons.

The Craig Ddu quarry to the north of Manod Mawr had a set of three inclines to reach the road, and a fourth to link with the railway below running to Blaenau. This was the route to market. It was also the quickest way home for the workers after a hard day’s work.

I asked the late Emrys Evans, who was apprenticed at the quarry in the 1920s how fast cars went down an incline. “I can’t tell you in seconds, but I can describe it as follows. At the end of the shift the men were allowed to place their cars on the track and as soon as the four o’clock hooter blasted from the Oakeley quarry, they were off. Most people started from the second incline. They were able to do these two inclines, run between them, put the car into an empty wagon, and reach the bus stop by the time the bus to Blaenau departed five minutes later. Buses were very punctual in those days.”

The length of the inclines to the road was 1,800 yards with a descent of 1,040 feet, and the journey, including the connecting sections, was reputedly done in about eight minutes.

The Wild Car [or Car Gwyllt] was an innovation credited to the quarry’s blacksmith in the 1870s. It ran between the two pairs of rails which were separated by a gap of three feet, and, more importantly, without any obstructions such as the rollers between the narrow gauge tracks.

The car consisted of very little. A piece of wood about two foot long and eight inches wide, with a “flanged” iron wheel towards the front and a V-shaped iron heel at the back. An iron bar stretched out from the centre of the board across to the other track to provide the balance on the other rail. Speed was controlled with a brake, which consisted of a handle between the driver’s knees that pressed a brake pad against the wheel – heels were also used!

“There was no driving test as such,” explained Emrys. “You simply sat on the car, pointed your legs straight out and leaned inwards onto the iron cross bar to get a good balance. The key was to avoid going too fast and losing control. When I first started at the quarry I would follow my father down with my feet pressed into his back. But after a couple of weeks I was going solo.”

At its peak the quarry employed more than two hundred workers. Rush hour must have been quite a sight, and fortunately the occasion was captured in The Quarryman [or Y Chwarelwyr] which was filmed in 1934.

Just looking at the inclines and the cars makes one think of danger and accidents, and there were many. Inexperience and recklessness were the main causes – unlike tobogganing out of control, there was no soft landing from a Car Gwyllt. A driver’s heel extended to slow his descent could kick slate onto the track and derail the car. Leaning too much or too little could cause the car to overbalance, and a stray foot could snag in the tracks. If you survived the impact you still had the risk of a substantial fall over the edge of the incline.

Examples of reckless behaviour included riding two people to a car: the combined weight was too much for the brakes, and on one occasion the result was inevitable broken legs. A girlfriend riding on one’s knee was a thrill in more ways than one! Daisy would have looked fine upon the seat of a Car Gwyllt made for two.

In an attempt to limit the accidents the afternoon rush hour was led by a “captain” whose job was to ensure a steady and smooth descent in an orderly fashion. “But on occasions we would wait until they had gone and see how fast we could go,” said Emrys with a twinkle in his eye.
Captain Killjoy at the front 1900

Children not yet teenagers would occasionally sneak into the works and take a car out in the evening. Sadly in the 1920s two of them were killed as they collided into a slate wagon.

The cars were private property, and each carried the initials of its quarryman owner. Some of them had detachable brake handles which would be removed to prevent them being taken by anyone else. Second-hand Ceir Gwylltion (plural of Wild Cars) would exchange hands when a worker retired or moved on. A new one could be ordered and bought for ten shillings, and Emrys’s father built his son’s first one.

The Craig Ddu quarry is thought to be the only place where Ceir Gwylltion were used. “The inclines were ideal,” said Emrys.  “Not too steep as to be impossibly dangerous, and without long flat stretches that would make the effort unviable.”

The practice continued until the quarry closed in 1939, reopening for only a brief period towards the end of war to supply slate for repairing roofs bombed in the London blitz.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

A Matter of Utmost Gravity

Amongst the statements, invoices and supermarket flyers in my post was a large envelope with a stiff card inside. Across the top, in bold print, it read ‘A Matter of Utmost Gravity’ - this was my invite to ride a gravity train.

We gathered at the engine sheds for an early morning briefing, wearing warm and sombre clothing, in keeping with the elements and the heritage. The ‘professionals’, in the sense that they’d done this before, were in their donkey jackets and bowler hats. They would be in charge of the brakes but would not have looked out of place at a funeral procession.

Head Brakesman in Bowler with Bugle
coming into Campbell's Platform
Our train consisted of 32 slate wagons connected with couplings that each allowed a foot of movement – this was a major element in the safety instructions, to make sure you didn’t get sandwiched in between. On braking, the wagons crash together like a concertina. Forms were signed to say we were willing to risk our lives in pursuit of the thrill – in terms of heritage railway experiences this has to be on the enthusiasts’ bucket list.

There were all sorts on board: in the wagon behind was the railway’s general manager, carefully laying down a large piece of cardboard on which to stretch out, ahead of me was the editor of Steam Railway magazine. Beyond him the director of the Rail Museum in York and someone from the National Slate Museum. Including the brakesmen, we were a crew of 30.

Horses were not available so a coal fired steam engine was to pull us up the track and we set off engulfed in a cloud of atmospheric steam. We spluttered out of the first tunnel – glasses and cameras all steamed up. After a level crossing, a water stop and a couple of token exchanges (signalling), we arrived, an hour later and 11 miles up the line, at the highest point from which we could freewheel.

It looked pretty flat to me but 1 in 80 was steep enough to get us going and within a couple of minutes we were rolling through the 310 yards (283m) of the Moelwyn Tunnel. Onwards and downwards with the occasional jolt and judder as the head brakesman raised his flag – red for all brakes on, yellow with a number shouted meant the first number of wagons to brake, and green for all brakes off.
Matt Baker rounding Tank Curve for Countryfile

As we rounded each bend, approached tunnels or trespassing sheep, the head brakesman was blowing a bugle but I heard none of this above the clatter of the wheels on the tracks.

For safety reasons we were doing up to 15 mph but 30 mph was said to be the speed at which they used to be operated – maybe full of slate they’d hug the line better? Being low to the ground, through cuttings hewn out of rock, there was a sensation of speed a bit like an open top sports car.

As we approached the coast a red signal caused us to stop and lose momentum. We started off once more but with only enough speed to get us a short distance across The Cob – the mile long embankment built by William Madocks in 1811.

Another steam engine came to the rescue and shunted us to the end of the line at Harbour Station for a celebratory breakfast. What a journey – the ultimate 11 mile rollercoaster ride.

Matt Baker from BBC Countryfile also enjoyed his ride on the Gravity Train.


Friday, 7 April 2017

Where's that Boulder?

Driving through Blaenau I can’t resist peeking into the yard by the fire station where the latest David Nash creations are underway. This week it was a tree trunk carved to resemble (to me) a pile of standing stones. Or maybe an upright caterpillar? It was good to see the artist at work on a cherry picker with chainsaw in hand. But which artist? Zoomed in this was clearly not the grand master himself but no doubt he would have been directing the operation.

Speaking of his great works, has anyone seen the Wooden Boulder? It disappeared from the mudbank on the river bend near Plas Tan y Bwlch about 18 months ago and I’ve not seen it since.

In case you don’t know the story it all started in 1978 with the base of a large oak tree being carved into a sphere of one metre diameter, somewhere on the banks of the stream that flows down through Coed y Bleiddiau. It was pushed into the stream by the artist as a means of getting it to the lane at the bottom for onward transport by van to his studio, but along the way it became a star in its own right – the famous Wooden Boulder.

People came from far and wide to see and experience the Boulder, to photograph and sketch it as over the course of 16 years it was slowly propelled from pool to pool by successive floods until in 1994 it was stuck by the bridge at Bronturnor. 
On a mudbank near Plas Tan y Bwlch 2013

David Nash hoisted it out of the stream onto the lane and addressed the boulder something along the lines of. Boulder, shall I place you upstream on that waterfall back there, or shall I take you to my studio or shall I place you back in the water downstream of the bridge. To which the Boulder ‘answered with determined clarity. Going back upstream was entirely wrong, against gravity and geography. Going to the studio it would dry out, die, become a relic. Into the stream beyond the bridge it would have life, dignity and freedom. So we rolled it down the road through Evan’s gate into the field and back in the stream, where it breathed again with the elements’. (Extract from Wooden Boulder 1978 - 2003 The Whole Story by David Nash.) 

For the next 8 years it stayed put until an exceptional storm carried it into the Afon Dwyryd where it moved up and down the estuary until disappearing from sight in 2003. The furthest downstream that it was seen was somewhere near Portmeirion.  Had it gone out into the ocean? Was it really spotted off Land’s End? Or was it stuck in the sand and mud?

In 2013 a large oak tree fell into the river upstream from the Maentwrog bridge. I stopped to look and thought it was going to be difficult to clear, but the following day it was gone! There had been heavy rain and a surge of water washed it away.  As it twisted and turned it broke into large chunks making its way towards the sea and maybe gouged the boulder from out of the mud? It was shortly after this that someone tipped me off that the Boulder was on that mudbank by Plas Tan y Bwlch.

It was a pleasure to take visitors to see the Boulder and to tell them its story but sadly it’s gone for the moment and who knows when it will be back again. Just in case it doesn’t reappear, this is what it looked like when I watched it disappear under an incoming tide.